Sometimes you just don’t have the right word.
You can stammer and gesticulate, but without the right word, you’ll be like a fish out of whatever-it-is-that-fish-live-in.
And the unfortunate thing is that sometimes the word you’re looking for simply doesn’t exist in the language you’re speaking. When you speak multiple languages, trying to find a word that translates to the word you want can become a polyglot problem. Luckily, there’s an easy and fun solution for this: just use an untranslatable word from a foreign language!
Untranslatable words are descriptive, entertaining and just downright cool. Just because your parents didn’t give you a cool foreign name doesn’t mean you still can’t have something foreign and exotic in your life.
Before we get too far in, let’s be straight: untranslatable words are not universally recognized. Scientific American points out that even the idea of an “untranslatable” word is up for debate. Some argue that no words are untranslatable since you can usually explain any word’s meaning in a few words. Others might argue that since all words have complex meanings, all words are “untranslatable.” But whether you think everything or nothing is translatable, the fact remains that some words are more difficult to translate or explain than others.
So whether you believe in untranslatable words or not, they’re still fun to learn more about. Today we’ll look at 10 entertaining words that some consider untranslatable.
Why Should You Learn These Untranslatable Words?
One popular reason to learn untranslatable words is that they offer vivid descriptions for things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to describe easily. Some languages have developed words for concepts, actions, feelings and things that other languages don’t necessarily have words for. Maybe they’re ahead of the trend and other languages will follow, but the fact remains that these words capture essential meanings that words in other languages do not.
Additionally, untranslatable words add color to your vocabulary. They’re interesting and dynamic, and using them will certainly make an impression and leave others asking more about the curious words.
Plus, untranslatable words are just plain fun. There’s something indescribably appealing about them. You may even find yourself sharing them with your friends and/or trading them like Pokemon cards. They’re the gift that keeps on giving.
Resources for Learning Untranslatable Words
If you finish this post and find you just can’t get enough untranslatable words—they are addicting, after all!—here are a few resources to help you get your fix.
This 20-card set introduces some vibrant untranslatable words, with colorful illustrations to accompany each word’s definition. You may use them as a crash course in untranslatable words or simply a fun item to display proudly on your coffee table.
Untranslatable Words is a Tumblr account dedicated to sharing and discussing some of the strange and exciting words that are out there. Its archives are vast, so it could fill your brain for days. Plus, you can also filter by language or part of speech to make it easy to find just the right word.
“Lost in Translation” is a beautifully illustrated book that contains 50 untranslatable words. The definitions also include part of speech, making the words significantly easier to work into your everyday vocabulary.
If you fancy a more academic approach to untranslatable words, you might try “Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon.” This volume contains about 400 words related to politics, philosophy, literature and more. It features words from over a dozen languages with entries written by over 150 scholars. Entries are quite thorough, so this is best for in-depth study rather than casual perusal.
10 Untranslatable Words to Help You Describe the Complexities of Life
Schadenfreude is pleasure derived from someone’s misfortune. Thanks to the popular musical “Avenue Q,” which dedicates a whole song (with adult content, so be warned) to it, schadenfreude is perhaps one of the better known untranslatable words.
—Why do you want to go to the park? It just started raining.
—Because a lot of people were picnicking there, and watching them frantically pack up is the best schadenfreude.
Inuktitut (an Inuit language from Arctic region in central and eastern Canada)
The feeling of anticipation when you are waiting for someone to arrive and keep checking to see if he/she has arrived yet.
I have too much iktsuarpok. I’m just going to wedge myself into the windowsill until he arrives.
Utepils literally means “outdoors lager.” It can be used to refer to a beer you drink outdoors, or to the act of drinking beer outside on a nice day.
After nine months of winter, it’s finally nice out. Want to come over for an utepils?
The sudden feeling of recognizing your own failures and miseries. It’s a combination of humiliation, remorse and self-pity.
Blair posted on social media about her tour of five-star restaurants in France. My most notable dining experience recently was last week when the food truck’s refrigerator went out and they had that seafood sale. I don’t know what’s worse: the lítost or the food poisoning.
Kilivila (an Austronesian language used in the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea)
Something everyone knows but does not discuss.
I’d love to find out where Sharon got her new calf implants, but I can’t ask anyone. It’s a mokita.
Yagán/Yaghan (an indigenous language from Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America)
The Guinness Book of World Records named mamilhlapinatapei the “most succinct word.” That’s quite an accomplishment for a word that’s 16 letters long! Mamihlapinatapei refers to an expressive exchange of glances when two people share the same thought. That thought may very well be romantic, but it doesn’t have to be.
When the boss started talking about how his employees needed to work harder after he himself had taken a two-hour nap in the copy room, Matt and Dave shared a mamihlapinatapei.
7. 侘寂 (Wabi-sabi)
侘寂 means beautiful imperfection. It’s a popular aesthetic concept that stems from Buddhist teachings.
My eyebrows aren’t unevenly plucked! They’re just 侘寂 (wabi-sabi).
Pascuenese/Rapa Nui (indigenous language of Easter Island)
Since this is an uncommon language, audio pronunciations are few and far between. However, the pronunciation is approximately TEEN-gō.
Depending on the source, you might find two different definitions for tingo. The first is to haul as much as you can. The second is to borrow your neighbor’s belongings one at a time until they’re all gone. The second is definitely more colorful.
My neighbor just went to IKEA, so I’m going over to tingo the heck out of that place. I just hoped they saved a few leftover meatballs.
A witty comeback you think of too late.
Five minutes after she told me that my shoes were ugly, I finally came up with a trepverter: “Well, at least I have a sole.”
Hesitation when you’re about to introduce someone but have abruptly realized you’ve forgotten his or her name.
When I tried to introduce my great-grandfather’s girlfriend to my boss, I had a tartle. She told me she’d forgive me as long as I helped her apply her eczema cream.
So if you just can’t put your finger on the right word to communicate an idea, don’t hesitate to throw in an untranslatable word!
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